Thursday, December 23, 2010

Caps-Pens analysis

Shootout skillz of Dupuis, Fleury lift Pens over Caps
Sometimes I wish I was a fan of a team other than the Penguins, but also not the Capitals. That way I could really enjoy the games when those teams meet regardless of the result. Instead, they're usually pretty damn nerve-racking and not always "happy endings." I think 20 percent of my hair turned gray during the 2009 playoff series.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 32 saves, including quite a few dazzlers and six almost-routine saves in the shootout, and Pascal Dupuis scored in round seven to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 victory over Washington. Last season, the Capitals won all four meetings, though two were in overtime or a shootout.

This game was fairly one-sided through two periods, then Pittsburgh wrested control for about 15 minutes of the third period before Washington regained its equilibrium for the final moments. Then it turned fairly even.

Mainly that was because the Penguins couldn't stay out of the penalty box. They took three non-coincidental penalties in each of the first two periods, including a crazy delay of game penalty by Matt Cooke, who shot the puck out of the opposite end of play from his own zone. Twice Pittsburgh had to kill off lengthy 5-on-3 disadvantages, one lasting 1:21 (eventually shortened by a Washington penalty) and the other of 1:51.

Although Sidney Crosby scored on another ridiculous deflection just 3:21 into the game - his 29th goal and extending his points streak to 23 - the Penguins were on their heels the whole first period. Fleury played perhaps his best game of the season. He made 12 saves in each of the first two periods.

Mike Green scored his first goal since Labor Day just after Washington's second 5-on-3 power play expired to tie the score at 1-1 after two. Crosby's effort and one-handed flip of the puck toward the net created a rebound that Chris Kunitz buried 17 seconds into the third period to break the tie.

That's when Pittsburgh took control, keeping the Capitals hemmed in their zone for much of the time. Shots in the third period were 11-5 Pittsburgh. It became Washington's turn to make treks to the penalty box, being whistled for three minors. But Pittsburgh's fatal flaw - its power play - not only couldn't bury the Capitals, it opened the door for Washington to bounce back.

After pussy-footing around the rink, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski tried to play catch along the attacking blue line but mucked even that up, leading to a turnover by Goligoski. Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble went the other direction in a near 2-on-1 and Knuble - with Goligoski committing a penalty on his back - slipped a puck under Fleury for a shorthanded goal with 5:29 remaining in regulation.

That salvaged a point for the Capitals, who maybe deserved more, maybe deserved less. It's hard to say. All their power play time allowed them to maintain a nice territorial edge - they had 13 power play shots after two periods, Pittsburgh had 12 total - but 5-on-5, Pittsburgh might've been better. Certainly the Penguins were in the third period after going ahead 2-1.

It's a good thing Pittsburgh has such a good penalty killing unit (still ranked first despite giving up a goal) because the Penguins take way too many penalties for an elite team to take. Washington finished 1-for-6 on the power play.

Pittsburgh blocked 23 shots; props to defensemen Deryk Engelland (five), Zbynek Michalek (four) and Kris Letang (three) plus forward Craig Adams (four). The Capitals blocked 21; I'm betting most came in the third period, because Michal Neuvirth had little to do through two periods.

Nice game by Green, whose goal was his first in 15 games. The goal, plus eight hits and five blocks. He did concede a penalty shot to Evgeni Malkin, but Geno sucks on breakaways/shootouts so it was probably the right play.

On the other hand, if the Capitals had given up a power play, they would've had more chances for a shorthanded goal.

Anyway. Pittsburgh won because of Fleury. He made a lot of big saves, including a huge pad save on Knuble late in regulation. After giving up a shootout goal to Alex Ovechkin in the first round - a real nice move by Ovechkin - Fleury stoned the rest of the Caps shooters, seemingly with ease.

I'm glad I didn't have to write a scathing post about Pittsburgh's power play, which nearly cost them a point in the standings. That is, again.

Big win for the Penguins, who as I mentioned lost all four games last season to Washington. Especially playing on the second of back-to-back nights and on a night when they didn't play their best at all.

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